Melissa Thompson Esaia

Melissa Thompson Esaia is an actor, teacher, writer, producer and activist. She has always had a passion for both the arts and service. She has worked as an actor in film, television and theatre for over 20 years. She studied The Meisner Technique for two years with Jim Jarrett, Sanford Meisner’s last teaching protégé.
When she completed her studies, Jim invited her to continue on as his first teacher-in-training. She studied intensively with Jim to learn to teach Sanford Meisner’s technique purely and authentically and now, over a decade later, Melissa serves as Assistant Director and Head of Faculty at The Meisner Technique Studio in San Francisco, the only school who continues to teach Sanford Meisner’s approach exactly as Mr. Meisner taught it.Melissa speaking at an event at The Meisner Technique StudioIn 2011, Melissa formed Kina’ole Pictures, a production company focused on creating films that spotlight social and environmental issues. She is a voice for animal welfare and works in Japan with Ric O’Barry, star of the Academy Award winning documentary The Cove, where she  documents the annual dolphin hunt and slaughters that take place there. Melissa’s video footage of the annual hunt and slaughters has been seen worldwide, including CNN Headline News.Melissa interviewing Ric O'Barry, star of The Cove Melissa is currently in post-production on a feature-length documentary film that features musician/filmmaker/activist Michael Franti, musician/activist Matt Sorum (The Cult, Guns N’ Roses) and Ric O’Barry (The Cove).
She can be seen in the upcoming feature films Meisner, directed by Jim Parrack (True Blood, Fury, Suicide Squad), and Talk is Cheap, directed by Jim Jarrett and executive produced by Barrie Osborne (The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings). One of Melissa’s favorite quotes was spoken by Sanford Meisner to a class of aspiring actors. He said, “This world needs you,” and Melissa agrees. Her view is that humanity is evolving and that the next great leaders will be the artists and those who are teaching awareness, compassion and kindness. She believes very much in the power of film to create change on this planet. She knows without any doubt that she was put on this planet in this era to use the voice she was given to hand off a better world to those who are coming after her. And she hopes to do that through her work as a filmmaker, actor, teacher and activist. Melissa Thompson Esaia has been teaching alongside Sanford Meisner’s last teaching protége, Jim Jarrett, for now over a decade. Jim calls her “the finest teacher of the Meisner Technique in the world who didn’t study directly under sandy.”


Recently Melissa sat down with Digital Journal to discuss her career as a filmmaker and teacher…
DJ: You’ve been acting for years. How did you transition into teaching actors?

I love teaching actors. I am honored and humbled to be a witness to the courage, humanity, vulnerability, strength and growth that shows up in every single class. My first love has always been acting. I wrote, directed and starred in my first play in the fourth grade. It has always been a part of me. But until I met Jim, I had always waded in the shallow end, so to speak. I never dove head first into the deep end of my dream. I graduated from college with a degree in psychology and began a career in social services. My favorite part of counseling was always working with groups, and I always tried to incorporate some type of artistic expression into my counseling work. Later in my social services career, I stopped working with clients and began training counselors, social workers and other social services professionals in areas such as team building, civil rights and enhancing soft skills like motivational interviewing. I found that I loved teaching, giving others a new skill or augmenting the training they already have in a field they feel passionate about. So when I completed my two years of professional Meisner Technique training with Jim and he invited me to train to teach at his school, it seemed like a perfect fit. I love teaching. I love acting. And I love dreamers, artists, risk-takers. I love being a part of something that truly is important and something I feel deeply passionate about. I love helping our students to find their voices and the courage to bring forth what’s inside them. Our students go out into the world and do all sorts of wonderful things with their dreams, and I feel incredibly honored to have played some part in all of it.

DJ: Tell us about your teaching philosophy.

I teach the Meisner Technique as purely as it was taught to me, which is exactly how Sanford Meisner intended it to be taught. I’m proud of this fact. Through Jim, I truly am a part of Sandy’s legacy, and this is something I do not take lightly. If I were to describe my teaching style in a few words, I’d say I’m passionate, detailed, tough, fair, compassionate and honest. I teach each person individually because each person needs to be taught individually. A note or adjustment I give to one student may not be appropriate for another student based on who they are and where their instrument is in its development. I believe one of the greatest gifts I bring is that it wasn’t really that long ago that I sat in their very same chair. So I have an understanding and empathy for what they’re going through — the growing pains of the training, the frustration of experiencing a major breakthrough and then falling flat on your face and everything in between and the sacrifices required to truly make a commitment to this training and to your dream. I get it. I love meeting a brand new class and looking out at them and thinking to myself, “You all have no idea the ride you’re about to take.” I know the magic that happens in that classroom, and I know the hard work and dedication that’s required to earn that magic.

DJ: We talk to a lot of artists who struggled early in their careers. Talk to us about your decision to make acting and teaching your career versus your hobby.

When I first started teaching, I was also still working in a very safe, secure, well-paying day job with great benefits, retirement, IRA, paid time off, etc., and I was working my way up the professional ladder and leading a very comfortable lifestyle. I was also observing Jim’s classes and acting just about every evening after work and on the weekends. And although I actually enjoyed my ‘day’ career, it didn’t feed my soul. It just fed my lifestyle. And for many, that’s enough. Or at least they convince themselves that it’s enough. But for me, it isn’t. Jim and I discussed the idea of me working with him at the school full-time for several months before I actually left my job. I saved as much money as possible, and with Jim’s help I created a plan for my exit. When I ‘broke the news’ to my parents, both were supportive but expressed their concerns for my financial security, retirement, healthcare, etc. All of the things I expected to hear. But they both know by now that I have a different view of work and life than they do, and we went through our growing pains with that years ago, so they really have been incredibly supportive, and I am so grateful to them for that. I had mixed responses from others — everything from, “Are you sure it’s the right time to be changing careers? You know, in this economy?” to “I wish I had the courage to take that kind of leap.” So it’s everything. But here’s the beauty of where I’m standing — I don’t care what anyone thinks. It’s my dream and my career and my life and I only have this one. I had been wading in the shallow end of my dream for a very long time, and I knew it was time to jump. Have I had moments when I’ve felt fearful? Absolutely. I’d be lying if I said there haven’t been moments when I have feared all of the uncertainties of this career choice. But I think this sums it up perfectly — when we finally made the decision to truly more forward with this, Jim asked, “So, are you scared?” And my answer, without hesitation, was, “The only thing that scares me is not doing it.”

Now I want to stress that I didn’t just jump blindly. I am not saying that our students or anyone should quit their day job tomorrow. No, no, no. I worked extremely hard to earn this opportunity, and once I made the decision, I planned and sacrificed and ‘set the table.’ I had to exercise patience, persistence and faith. Looking back on it all, I now know that everything I’ve ever done has led me to teaching actors. Everything. When I was in the middle of the road, not knowing what was ahead, there were many times when I felt discouraged, scared, frustrated and even hopeless. There were times when I thought my life would be so much easier if I was just ‘normal,’ if I could be satisfied with having my safe job and safe life. There was a chapter when I absolutely thought I could settle for that existence, but you wouldn’t be reading this article if I had turned left at that intersection in my life. This transition had been several years in the making. I’ve sacrificed greatly. I’ve been judged, and I’ve been called insane and irresponsible. But I’m also standing right where I want to be, living the life I was meant to live.

I can’t talk about this major life change without giving proper respect to Jim Jarrett, my friend and my teacher. Jim and I were absolutely supposed to find each other. He has been my greatest inspiration and support. Jim has been the single most instrumental influence in my dream and in my life. He taught me that I have a powerful voice and that what I have to say is important. He has held my hand through the darkest days of my dream and my life. He taught me about greatness and courage and has had an unwavering belief in my talent as a teacher and as an artist. I have so much respect for this great teacher, this great man, this great friend, and I am eternally grateful for the opportunities he has offered me and for trusting me with the gift he has given me — sharing his school and his students with me.

DJ: How did you go from activist to producer and actress?

Actually I went from actress to producer to activist. I have been an actress all my life and in the last several years, I have been producing my own films as well. Several years ago, I watched the film Food, Inc. and was blown away by the effect this film had on me. And not long after that, I watched The Cove, and that film changed my career direction and my life forever.

From that moment on, I realized that with what precious time I have on this earth, I am only going to work on projects that can do to people what The Cove did to me, films that can wake people up and inspire change. When I saw The Cove, I knew that it wasn’t enough for me simply to be heartbroken at what I’d just witnessed through this film. Soon after, I attended a Dolphin Project benefit where I met Ric O’Barry and I asked him, “What can I do?” His answer was simply, “I don’t know. What CAN you do?”

His question began a search for me that has led me to Taiji, Japan to work as a Cove Monitor with Ric and his team of passionate, amazing activists, as well as doing everything I can to raise awareness about the captivity industry. From protesting at marine parks to speaking at the Orca Welfare and Safety Act (AB2140) hearing in Sacramento, I’m committed to taking an active responsibility for changing the state of our world through my direct activism and also through my work as a filmmaker.

DJ: What can you tell us about A Beginner’s Guide to Saving the World?

I’m very excited about this film. It’s my heart and soul and passion project. It is all about the power of one person to make a difference in this world and it speaks to anyone who has ever believed deeply in something, cared passionately about something and wanted to do something but didn’t know how. There is so much going on in this world today, and many people think it’s too late for us to turn it around, but I disagree. So I am making this film to help people to understand that we all must contribute in any way we can and that it isn’t too late and that one person CAN make a difference. I have been so blessed to connect with some really amazing and compassionate people who are now a part of my film, people with really loud voices like Michael Franti and Matt Sorum, and people you’ve never heard of like Katrine Kirsebom and Corinne Hindes. These girls are so inspiring! At age 11 they created a non-profit to collect unclaimed lost and found items from ski resorts and donate them to the homeless. They are such a beautiful example of how easy it is to do something to make the world a better place. The film is about the roller coaster of being someone who cares deeply about the world and who is trying to make a difference, the victories, the heartaches, the hope, the hopelessness…all of it…and how we keep going. I am grateful to be fiscally sponsored by the San Francisco Film Society and a part of their Artist Development Program.

Interview Now 
January '19